August 8, 2020

55 years since a 14 foot, $41 Million, “cheap lesson” swept through Port Alberni. New report has good suggestions.

Just after midnight on March 28, 1964 a 2.5 metre (8ft) wave rushed up the “Alberni Canal”, surprising mill workers and waking residents. Ninety minutes later it was followed by a 4 metre, (14ft) “wall of water” barreling in at 400km/hr, smashing structures, throwing logs and debris everywhere, and carrying homes off their foundations.

The magnitude 9.2 megathrust earthquake in Alaska was so strong that “light fixtures on long extensions were set swinging as far distant as Vancouver and Calgary” according to the official report.

Despite numerous tales of improbable rescues and close calls that dark night, no one was killed.

There is some great archival video at the CBC Archives of the initial reporting of the disaster.

Despite what now seems like unbelievably lucky circumstance, the civil defense forces of the time called the $5 Million in damage ($41M in 2019 dollars) with no loss of life a “cheap lesson” for something they knew even back then could come from a quake much closer to home with much larger results. (You can download and read the original government report on the events of that night here)

We had another even cheaper reminder, complete with evacuation, in the early morning of January 23, 2018 when we were all (or at least most) woken by the wailing air raid style Tsunami warning sirens.

It was a wild night, and researchers from UBC took that opportunity to gauge the response from the community and offer suggestions.

It turns out, we all have taken that experience from 1964 pretty seriously. Over 90% of people in the inundation zone heard the sirens and took action. You can see their full report here. It is easy to read and has some interesting observations and recommendations.

Click the image to download the report

I particularly liked this suggestion: Having clear boundaries, based on roads (or alleys) for the inundation zone, rather than the precise but difficult to understand 20m lines would give people a better ability to know “where they stand”.

Alberniweather: Living on the Edge!

My family followed our plan and evacuated that night even though we are just on the safe side of the line. We have updated our plan though, and next time, as I said in my thread on twitter last week which is below, we won’t evacuate immediately so that we don’t add to the congestion of others evacuating who are in the zone. Then we can participate in relief efforts during and after the emergency and of course if we are told we must evacuate anyway, we would go.

The most important thing people need to know in that situation is where to go.

If you don’t have a friend or family member to go to who is above the inundation zone, then Echo Community Centre (the pool) is where the City of Port Alberni currently sets up its emergency reception centre. Even if it is not open yet when you get there (remember, City staff have to potentially evacuate themselves first too) that is the place to go.

The evacuation last January was the first time I’d ever been in that kind of situation before. And the way things work in the world of earthquakes and Tsunamis, there is a good chance that will be the only time in my lifetime that I will have to go through that.

But there is a chance it won’t be the only time in my lifetime. And there is a very very good chance that it will happen, and possibly The Big One, will happen, during my children’s lifetime and almost certainly in my future grandchildren’s lifetime.

That is why it is so important to pass these lessons on to our family, or friends and our neighbours and stay prepared. So that next time those sirens wail… or even if they don’t and instead our warning is being shaken off our feet… we know to not ask questions, but to follow our plan and get to safety.

More info on Emergency Preparedness here!

2 thoughts on “55 years since a 14 foot, $41 Million, “cheap lesson” swept through Port Alberni. New report has good suggestions.

  1. Hi Chris. I certainly appreciate your efforts to spread awareness for Earthquake and tsunami awareness.
    As a survivor of the 1964 Port Alberni “Tidal Wave” myself, my family is very conscious of the potential and risk of an Earthquake and or Tsunami in our community.

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